Sean Yoes

By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Editor
syoes@afro.com

Pless Jones Sr. made his money and became a Black business legend in Baltimore by tearing down houses.

His son wants to tear down long-standing constraints of systemic racism in the city by building strong communities and is implementing a $200 million new vision for East Baltimore.

Pless Jones Jr. and his wife Elizabeth are leading an ambitious, or some (I am some) would say, revolutionary multi-year development project in the Broadway East community. They call the first phase of this three-phase endeavor the “Equality Equation,” and the Joneses have laid out their vision in great detail within a comprehensive document of the same name.

“Systemic racism is what fuels the racial wealth disparity. It is driven by antiquated housing and penal policies that were designed to reverse the advances Blacks made during Reconstruction,” reads the very first sentence of the document.

“The Equality Equation facilitates the cooperation needed between government, private industry, nonprofits and investors, in order to mitigate the racial wealth disparity, and provide access to the American Dream, to all citizens,” reads the opening sentence of the document’s overview.

The Equality Equation manifests as a future physical transformation of a large swath of Broadway East. The Joneses characterize that transformation as the Baltimore Wellness Project, which includes construction of an Industrial Park for Workforce Development, Broadway East Affordable Home Development and the Baltimore Athletic Live and Learn Center and the New Broadway East Wellness Center.

I spoke with Pless and Elizabeth Jones by phone this week about Baltimore and Black people, business and the future of our city. And they illuminated some of the practices that have been established over centuries, that have endeavored to keep Black people and poor people dependent upon malicious political, cultural and economic systems; systems they want to break.

“I think it was born out of a necessity. I’m a second generation general contractor. Pless Jones Sr. owns P and J Contracting, or he did. We are transferring to me as we speak. We’ll close on that next week,” Jones Jr. said. “But, it started because of what we were seeing. We have been doing demolition in the city probably for 40 years and we’ve been on the demolition contract (with the city) for approximately 20 years. And what we were noticing is that there were private developers that were able to tap directly into Baltimore City, into the state somewhat to start deterring demolition contracts,” he added. “Now, it seemed benign at first because it was more under the auspices of doing development. As we started noticing that these companies were not even putting out the demolition and site work for bid, they were still receiving state CORE dollars block grant dollars that were public access and public resources to leverage for private jobs. But, they were not bound by MBE participation goals.”

 In other words, the Joneses are battling a centuries old system in Baltimore rooted in various “isms:” nepotism, cronyism, sexism and racism designed to prosper some and exclude others. It is an intricate system crafted and reconfigured over decades by cunning gatekeepers to often appear as Jones put it “benign.” Yet, it is anything but and has been the bane of Black excellence for generations.

“We’re not trying to end racism, if that’s what somebody needs for themselves, then they are more than welcome to it,” said Elizabeth Jones. “So the idea is that we are not focusing on racism. We are focusing on equality and on access at every level: the development level, the community level the individual level giving people access,” she added, “We are just as American as apple pie and bean pies.”

In 1978, Pless Jones Sr., who is now 72, was part of a group of pioneering Black businessmen, who were the first participants in Maryland’s Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) program, the first of its kind in the country (Parren J. Mitchell, the iconic Congressman from the 7th Congressional District was the original architect of the minority business set aside).

Pless and Elizabeth Jones are propelled to a great extent by Jones Sr.’s legacy, as they implement the Equality Equation.

“Being my father’s son I’ve always deferred to him. But, I’ve learned to let him rub off on me and just kind of take it all in and not be so quick to speak,” said Jones Jr. “In doing that and respecting his place in Baltimore, I was able to be real humble and just everything and process all the things that I was seeing. It’s just my time to be able to speak my truth based on the people that laid the foundation here on their shoulders.” 

Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Senior Reporter and the author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor